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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (center), greeting supporters while not wearing a mask, has a frosty relationship with the nation’s scientific community.

Alan Santos/PR

‘A hostile environment.’ Brazilian scientists face rising attacks from Bolsonaro’s regime

Last week, scientists at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), Brazil’s lead agency for studying and managing the nation’s vast protected areas, had to start abiding by an unwelcome new rule. It gives one of ICMBio’s top officials the authority to review all “manuscripts, texts and scientific compilations” before they are published.

Researchers fear President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which has a markedly hostile relationship with Brazil’s scientific community, will use the reviews to censor studies that conflict with its ongoing efforts to weaken environmental protections. The administration says that is not the intent. But the move adds to recent developments that have rattled many Brazilian scientists and left those who are critical of Bolsonaro’s policies fearing for their jobs and even their physical safety.

“Science is being attacked on several fronts,” says Philip Fearnside, a veteran ecologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). “There is denial of the pandemic, denial of climate change, denial of deforestation; not to mention budget cuts.”

Bolsonaro’s grievances with scientists date back to the start of his administration in 2019. Then, he accused the National Institute for Space Research of “lying” about satellite data showing increased deforestation in the Amazon and fired its director, physicist Ricardo Galvão, after he defended the numbers. Since then, Bolsonaro has clashed with researchers over issues including his persistent rejection of science-based strategies for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 330,000 Brazilians. But the relationship appears to have entered an even tenser phase in recent months.

One example came in February, when Brazil’s top anticorruption agency, the Office of the Comptroller General, informed epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, former rector of the Federal University of Pelotas, that he could lose his job because of criticism he leveled at Bolsonaro in January during an online event. Hallal, who coordinates Brazil’s largest COVID-19 epidemiology research project, had called Bolsonaro “despicable,” citing the president’s antivaccination rhetoric and his political interference in the selection of university rectors.

Just weeks earlier, Bolsonaro’s education ministry had ordered the rectors of all 69 federal universities, which employ most Brazilian scientists, to “prevent and punish political-partisan acts” by employees. After an outcry, the ministry last month withdrew the order, and Hallal ultimately reached a settlement with the comptroller’s office, promising not to “promote expression of appreciation or disapproval in the workplace” for 2 years.

Hallal remains defiant. “If the idea was to silence me, I have to say it backfired,” he says. “It’s motivating me to be even more critical and say what needs to be said.” But he fears the political climate is silencing some of his colleagues. “A lot of people are saying less than they would like to, for fear of retaliation.”

Scientists are also reconsidering what they study and publish, says Marcus Lacerda, an infectious disease specialist with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Manaus, Brazil. Last year, he faced intense inquiries from federal prosecutors—and received death threats—after he published work highlighting the health risks of giving the drug chloroquine to COVID-19 patients. (Bolsonaro heavily promoted chloroquine despite studies concluding it is ineffective against COVID-19.) “A lot of people are afraid to publish after what happened to me,” Lacerda says. Colleagues have abandoned coronavirus research, he adds, in order to avoid online harassment by what is known as Bolsonaro’s “digital militia.”

In one case, online harassment appears to have escalated to a physical attack. After biologist Lucas Ferrante, a doctoral candidate at INPA, published articles in high-profile journals (including Science) criticizing Bolsonaro’s environmental and health policies, his cellphone and social media accounts lit up with threatening messages. Then, in November 2020, he says he was attacked by a man driving what he thought was an Uber vehicle he had hailed; the man told Ferrante he “needed to shut up” and attacked him with a pointy object. Since then, Ferrante says he has been wary of leaving his house and carries a cellphone that isn’t linked to his name.

This week, a group of Brazilian researchers cited safety concerns in explaining why they did not sign their names to a white paper, published by the Climate Social Science Network housed at Brown University, that outlines Bolsonaro’s efforts to dismantle environmental protections. They decided to remain anonymous “for security reasons and considering the current political scenario in Brazil,” they wrote.

At ICMBio, the new oversight rule gives review authority to the institute’s biodiversity research director, one of four ICMBio directors who serve under the institute’s president. In a statement, institute officials portrayed the order as simply a bureaucratic shift, noting that ICMBio’s president previously had review authority. “There is no censorship,” it states. But researchers note that none of the top ICMBio officials is a scientist trained to conduct technical reviews; all are former military police officers or firefighters.

A similar rule was issued last month at Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research, a prominent federal research institution.

Brazilian scientists are also facing a deepening funding crisis. Government spending on research has shrunk by more than 70% from a 2014 peak, and the Bolsonaro administration recently cut 34% from the science ministry’s investment budget for this year. The country’s top federal funding agency, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, is expected to have less than $4 million available for research grants this year.

The funding troubles and constant conflict are wearing down Brazilian researchers, says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia and co-founder of the Science and Society Coalition, a group created in 2019 to promote science-based policies. “I am so exhausted of having to defend myself all the time,” she says. “Meanwhile, all the important issues that we really should be tackling are being left behind.”

Most Brazilian scientists “are not accustomed to functioning in such a hostile environment,” adds Atila Iamarino, a microbiologist and prominent science communicator. “They are trained to argue with facts, but that’s not what matters most in these situations.”

*Correction, 7 April, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been changed to note that Ferrante says he was attacked with a pointy object, not punched.